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Behind the Headlines: Israel’s New U.N. Ambassador Has a Different Vision of World Body

The challenge for Israel’s new ambassador to the United Nations is less that of hasbarah, responding to Arab canards against the Jewish state, and more that of harvesting the fruits of Israel’s new diplomatic status.

Gad Yaacobi is settling into his post on the East River at a time when Israel has formal relations with two-thirds of the United Nation’s 179 member states.

Instead of just attempting to roll back the tide of anti-Israel resolutions, such as the 1975 condemnation of Zionism as racism that was overturned last year, he is able to work on forging a role for Israel as a fully equal member of the world body.

“I would like to see Israel less a client of the U.N.,” he says, referring in particular to the peacekeeping forces and observers sitting on Israel’s borders, “and more as a participant in every sphere and field of activity.”

One sign of progress on that front was the recent invitation Israel received to join U.N. civilian peacekeeping efforts around the world.

Another is Israel’s effort to be accepted as a member of the Western European and Others working group, which would enable Israel to be elected to the Security Council and to chair U.N. committees.

Yaacobi acknowledges that it is “unrealistic” for Israel to join the more geographically appropriate Asian caucus until there are peaceful relations with the Arab countries.

He says joining the Western European group, which includes non-European democracies such as the United States and Australia, is a “completely justified” interim measure, one that has the strong support of the United States, the Netherlands and Denmark.

A third sign of the new Israeli role at the United Nations is Yaacobi’s impatience with the once-common denigration of the world body, summed up in an Israeli phrase best translated as “U.N.-shmuen.”

On the contrary. Yaacobi has not forgotten how, when he was 13 years old, the United Nations voted to create the State of Israel. And he recognizes the significance of U.N. membership in Israel’s joining the family of nations.

He stresses that it was the Security Council that passed the resolutions, 242 and 338, that became the basis for Middle East peace negotiations for 25 years.

But beyond that, “the U.N. has changed since the end of the Cold War,” he says. “In certain aspects, we’re experiencing a totally different U.N.”

Yaacobi cites the world body’s role in trying to settle regional conflicts, how it has worked to resolve more such crises in the past three years than in the previous 45.

And Yaacobi believes the United Nations can contribute to resolving the conflict in the Middle East, as well.

Not in the way sought by the old General Assembly resolutions, calling for a U.N.-brokered regional peace conference, which remain on the books and even on this year’s agenda.

Instead, says Yaacobi, the United Nations can help by contributing its expertise and resources to the solution of the nonpolitical problems faced by the region.

To that end, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres reversed the policy of the Likud government and invited the United Nations to become a full participant in the five sets of multilateral peace talks on regional issues that complement the bilateral negotiations being held in Washington.

U.N. participation in the multilateral talks is constructive and justified, says Yaacobi, “because we are dealing with issues of regional development, of developing resources for the people in the area.”

And while peace can only come from the face-to-face negotiations among the parties, the multilateral talks have a vital role in shaping Israeli-Arab cooperation once a settlement is reached.

The United Nations itself may also play a role in that process. Perhaps in recognition of that, Yaacobi met Monday with William Draper, who heads the United Nations Development Program. Since 1980, the program has spent more than $25 million in the administered territories, on projects such as constructing hospitals and classrooms for the Palestinians.

Yaacobi’s message to Draper: Keep it up, and more so.

The Israeli asked the U.N. official to create more jobs, enlarge facilities for health and education, invest more in infrastructure, and consider building warehouses and ports for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

“We have a great interest in decreasing tensions between Israel and the territories,” says Yaacobi. “We want to focus on creating more employment in the territories for Palestinians.

“It goes very much along with our concept of a future political settlement, based on a Jordanian-Palestinian state on the one side, Israel on the other, and a hermetic border, early warning systems and a comprehensive peace.”

Yaacobi’s arrival at the United Nations follows 23 years service in the Knesset, including stints heading the ministries of Transport, Economic Planning and Communications.

Like several other Israeli politicians, Yaacobi has several political tomes on his resume with titles such as “The Power of Quality” and “The Future Starts Now.”

But the ambassador is rare among his colleagues for appearing not only on the political pages of the newspapers, but for contributing to the poetry section as well. Also to his credit are two books for children.

He believes that relations between Israel’s artistic community and American Jewry have been insufficiently developed.

“We have to work on this common denominator in a more dynamic way,” he says.

Along those lines, he opened the recently concluded Israel Film Festival in New York and is hosting an evening of Israeli poetry.

That event, featuring four Israeli poets, is newsworthy for being held in the United Nations’ Dag Hammarskjold Auditorium. It is the first such Israeli- sponsored cultural event to be held at the United Nations, at least in recent memory.

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